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A revamped exploration program might preserve NASA’s plans to return to the Moon despite the economic impact of the pandemic, but it will have to forego development of the lunar Gateway. (credit: NASA)

Reinvigorating NASA’s lunar exploration plans after the pandemic

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In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Josh Rogin argued for the need for a strong American response to China’s perceived mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic: “Americans in both parties increasingly agree that the United States needs a tougher, more realistic China strategy that depends less on the honesty and goodwill of the Chinese government.” Such a strategy should include space, too.

For NASA, it may likely not be budget cuts, but almost surely any budget increase will face the axe.

The response to the coronavirus will have long-term impacts on NASA. With trillions of dollars spent so far, budget cuts for all agencies can be expected in the next fiscal year and beyond. NASA will be among the agencies affected more adversely than others, given they are not considered to be essential. Democratic lawmakers, but also many Republican ones, will oppose any increase sought for the agency. The Moon has, in this since, moved further away. How do we fix this problem?

Antagonism towards China by the public, and hence lawmakers, combined with the threat of budget cuts, points to a potential and necessary path. For NASA, it may likely not be budget cuts, but almost surely any budget increase will face the axe.

China’s activities in space are not just for economic or military superiority, though they may be a side effect, with even higher probability of that now. They are also doing it for civilizational pride, which morphs into national pride. It is very strong. The motivating factors in the near future will not be just financial. China’s pride has been hurt by the pandemic, so they will do the things to rejuvenate it. The Chinese feel that they were an exceptional civilization for a long time. They want that again and understandably so. It is nationalism, not communism. They need a face-saving mechanism badly and space is one of them. Space exploration for China, and other old civilizations like India, beckons of otherworldly qualities. It overlaps with science and the spirit of exploring. We need to understand that, and not try to reduce everything to economic numbers.

Despite these recent horrendous stumbles, they will have humans on the Moon in as little as five to seven years. And it will not be for any other reason than to start to “win” in space. They may well be the first to extract water from the Moon. It is not a space race as a military competition this time around, but will devolve into an egoistic and economic one—a “space race” nonetheless.

This is why going to the lunar surface, not the lunar Gateway, is very important for the United States. This time, of course, it’s not just to visit, or even just to stay. That is not enough. It is to do things there, and those high priority things to do are on the surface, not in orbit.

This also implies we not only will need to be there in large numbers but also quickly, in order to compete or to reach a favorable distribution. Those at the table write the rules. All of the above means we need a solution that can take thousands of tons, not hundreds, of infrastructure and other materials to the lunar surface.

NASA is doing the right thing by exploring options for the Human Landing Systems through contracts announced recently. While doing that, though, we need to also find ways to efficiently send needed infrastructure to the surface first, in some format that does not rely on the lunar Gateway to get the task done. It needs to be done over next few years, with the habitats and other infrastructure, including for in-situ resource utilization, awaiting the astronauts’ arrival.

Just letting the space companies take over will also miss one important mark. NASA needs to devise ways where businesses participate, but where the public feels proud and not just the owners of those companies.

This problem cannot be solved by just the Space Launch System. It is five to eight times more costly than the approaches I’ve discussed here previously (see “A giant leap for America”, The Space Review, November 20, 2017; and “How to make an urgent and affordable return to the Moon”, The Space Review, October 14, 2019), and is expected to have much less frequent launch capability. We will need five to ten launches a year of this type to take the requisite infrastructure and material to the lunar surface. Going to Mars using this method is also faster, and it can be done in four years. And later, using in-situ water ice from the lunar surface with gravity assist would be an attractive choice as well. The SLS program needs to be readdressed to design and produce the upper stages for different destinations using different (possibly methane and hydrogen) fuels and different payload sizes, along with other exploration concepts and hardware.

Just letting the space companies take over will also miss one important mark. For the public to feel the pride, as they did during Apollo, they have to feel that they did it, that we did it, that NASA largely did it. NASA needs to devise ways where businesses participate, but where the public feels proud and not just the owners of those companies.

While continuing science, NASA should do those things now that speak towards this potential competition with China in the human exploration arena. It may be or surely will be a space race, a competition for lunar resources, including water ice, that we do not wish China to get a controlling interest in. Lawmakers will be in mood to listen to that, rather than spend billions for relatively more cosmetic endeavors like the lunar Gateway. If we concentrate on the lunar Gateway, we will miss the bus and then it will be too late: another easy win for China. We cannot allow that.

NASA should postpone the lunar Gateway for now, concentrate fully on getting to the lunar surface anyway we can—not that it has to be SLS or bust, especially now that its first launch has again slipped to mid to late 2021. We can get to the surface using reusable boosters like Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, or Starship, at a fifth the cost of SLS, as well as be quicker and scalable. It will require some modifications, some prodding, and some out-of-the-box thinking that I am sure NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate can do under the new leadership it has now. Congress will like it too—surely with grumblings from some, although others will secretly and not-so-secretly applaud it. I believe the Trump Administration will also be quite welcoming of it. The paradigm has shifted greatly in last few months. We can wait for several months to make these changes, but we absolutely cannot afford to wait for years.

NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development released on April 3 is very well thought out, but I am afraid the lunar Gateway reliance would be hindering. It needs to be flipped, with trying to concentrate on it after five years instead of before. That we need to beat China and stay several steps ahead is now a much more convincing argument to Congress, and correctly so. NASA should utilize this mindset while the iron is hot. Asking Congress for billions for the Gateway is just not going to fly. Using the unnecessarily costlier SLS will also not be favorably rewarded. But competing strongly with China will be. Upsetting Boeing and Lockheed Martin is minor compared to the whole country being upset by China as has happened now, and may again in future.

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